I’m a sucker for the second-best. Well, okay, so Duke Snider was more like the third-best outfielder in New York during the 1950s (as you may have heard), but you get the idea. I’ve never pretended to be a historian of baseball. I hardly remembered that Snider’s nickname was “The Silver Fox,” although that’s partly because it seems silly that someone who is already called “Duke” (itself a nickname given to him by either his uncle in recognition of young Edwin’s pride after his first day of school) needs a nickname. I suppose it’s not nearly as dumb as calling Jason Heyward the ‘The J-Hey Kid,’ a lame rip-off nickname made worse by the fact that Heyward’s middle name is incredibly awesome: Adenolith. Seriously, a player has a middle name that sounds like a cross between one of Godzilla’s foes and something out of H.P. Lovecraft, but the best (probably) some hack at an Atlanta newspaper and/or former Jeff Francoeur fan (side question: does Heyward fly Delta?) can do is “The J-Hey Kid?” Where was I? Oh, yeah, the late Duke Snider. As a quasi-sabermetric tribute to him, I propose renaming the “Willie Mays Problem” the “Duke Snider Problem.”
There are few things more irritating in historical baseball commentary than having to listen to some baby boomer hail back to an age when Baseball Was Pure And Better (when no one used amphetamines and those who used amphetamines certainly did not have their performance enhanced by them and the amount that amphetamines enhanced performance is definitely nothing compared to steroids), like, say, the 1950s in New York. However, one must admit that having three players like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider all in their primes at the same time in the same city is pretty incredible. You’ve got probably one of the top-five players of all time, one of the top 10, and then there’s Duke, who is probably “only” one of the top 100. There’s a separate “peak versus total overall value” issue lurking here, but I’ll leave it aside for now to simply note that to be Duke Snider in the 1950s was to be a little bit like Barry Windham in the 1980s: a magnificent peak that is sometimes forgotten because of its brevity and also because of proximity to Ric Flair and Rickey Steamboat (I’ll let you decide out who is who; on the basis of lifestyle alone Mantle = Flair). Association with a much-loved group (Boys of Summer = Four Horsemen) also tends to overshadow individual accomplishments.
If you haven’t heard all about Snider being great-but-overshadowed-by-his-contemporaries before yesterday, I’m sure you read all about it in the hours since the news of Snider’s passing. It really is hard to think of recent groups of great players at the same position all having their primes at the same time. The closest thing I can think of is Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Wade Boggs, arguably (Eddie Matthews has to be in the discussion, too) the three best third basemen of in major-league history playing at roughly the same time. Perhaps the closest thing in recent years was having Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, and Jim Thome all at first base (sort of). However, while all three are more than worthy of Hall of Fame induction, I don’t think any of the three would have a claim on the “greatest of all time.” The shortstop trio of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra didn’t quite work out, did it (I count A-Rod as a shortstop)?
The presence of three great players at center field during those seasons brings to mind an important issue in sabermetrics: positional adjustments. Most baseball fans understand, at least intuitively, that given two players with the same offensive contribution, the one who plays the more difficult position is more valuable. The defensive spectrum (excluding the “special case” of catchers), from least to most difficult, is this:
We would assume that fewer and fewer players would be able to adequately play each position as we move rightward, which also shrinks the pool of hitters for each position as we go rightward, and thus, while “defensive responsibility” increases as we move right, “offensive responsibility” decreases. This is generally the case, so one might think that the way to do positional adjustments is to simply baseline a player’s offensive contributions against the average of the position he plays. Most of the time, that “works.” But not always. Compare these positional splits from 1954:
This is not an isolated occurence, as was the case for much of the 1950s — center fielders hit as just about as well or sometimes better than left fielders. Does this mean that center fielders were just as easy to find as left fielders? Of course not: we can be confident that a center fielder would be even better in left, whereas players who have left field as their primary position would be much worse in center. If one simply adjusts for positional value by average offense at each position, for some eras it will look like center field is not any more valuable than left or right, and that simply defies baseball logic.
We know why this was the case for the 1950s, of course: a large proportion of good and great hitters in center field. Hence the name the “Willie Mays Problem.” Of course, Mays didn’t do it alone. Mickey Mantle did his part, as did Richie Ashburn, Larry Doby, and, of course, Duke Snider (among others). But we know that (generally speaking) the best defensive outfielder is going to get put in center field, even if he hits better than the left fielder. That is why Tom Tango suggests using runs (or wins) per playing-time-at-position to adjust for the relative value at positions, which is how positional adjustments are implemented in Fangraphs WAR. One can also adjust those values for era, as different kinds of players were put at the various positions in different eras.
This isn’t necessarily the final word on the topic. Colin Wyers has proposed an intriguing new variation on the “average offense at the position” approach that attempts to at least mitigate the Mays Problem (see also this discussion). This is an ongoing topic for research. In the meantime, and in the spirit of the day, I would humbly suggest that for all of Willie Mays’ greatness, he is duly recognized and memorialized. As long as Bob Costas is still broadcasting, no one is going to forget Mickey Mantle (and if there’s a “Mickey Mantle Problem” it has less to do with positional adjustments and more to do with Miguel Cabrera‘s current situation). As noted above, the relative offense of the outfield positions in the 1950s wasn’t accomplished by Mays alone, but by a whole group of players who excelled both with the bat and glove. In recognition of that fact, I propose that we re-christen it the Duke Snider Problem.
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